Recently, I was surprised with amazing news.
A story I had written last year for the Toronto Star nabbed the top spot in the Explore Canada Awards of Excellence (Canadian category).
Why does this matter?
First off, this award recognizes writing that inspires people to travel in, and to, Canada. Second, I was a finalist alongside other incredible writers/editors that I truly admire. That is one of my main goals with writing. Third, this story details one of my most incredible and memorable travel experiences – one where true connections were made. And lastly, being recognized for doing something you love, which for me is storytelling, is a feeling that cannot be beat.
I’m extremely proud and have decided to share the story here (with many new, never published images), on my blog. I hope you enjoy it.
I came to B.C. to end my grizzly bear drought. Nearly 20 years had passed since seeing one and, for a self-proclaimed wildlife fanatic, this was a problem.
However, wildlife is never predictable and clearly the universe had other plans for me.
After a 30-minute drive from Port Hardy, Mike Willie of Sea Wolf Adventures welcomes me to the North Vancouver Island community of Port McNeill. Excited for a day of exploration in the Broughton Archipelago, we grab a coffee and set sail.
Business is booming for the relatively new entrepreneur. Since starting in 2013, there’s been an increasing demand for experiences combining First Nations culture and nature. Willie couldn’t be better equipped.
Growing up in the southern part of the Great Bear Rainforest in the remote village of Kingcome Inlet, Willie is a hereditary chief of the Musgamakw Dzawada’enuxw First Nation and has a genuine passion for wildlife.
He’s also keenly dedicated to sharing the oral traditions of his culture, hoping to further develop tourism in the island’s northern territory.
“We are finally just talking tourism in these parts,” Willie says. “As tourism grows, I’m wanting to inspire more of our people to get into it.”
The idea for Willie’s adventure business came after he spent time alone in the forest fasting. Relying on hunting skills and instinct to stay alive, Willie retreated to the forest to reconnect with nature and his roots. What he left with was a vision.
“I believe we are all here for a reason. Mine is to protect what we have by educating. It’s my greatest joy to be able to share who I am and where I come from.”
On board, an assortment of eagle feathers hang from the roof, collected over the past year. The weather has calmed and we cruise the water in a unique boat from New Zealand called a Stabicraft.
“Today is your lucky day,” he tells me, “I’m going to take you somewhere special — Kingcome Inlet, my home.”
En route, we cruise by Gilford Island. Willie’s mother was born here and it’s also where the oldest standing Kwakwakw’wakw, or big house (where people lived), complete with cedar beams from 1887, stands.
“We are now in the territory of my people,” he announces as we pass by Mt. Stephens, with four peaks representing the area’s four tribes.
Curious, and wolf-obsessed thanks to a myriad of odd, ongoing connections to the species over the years, I share some stories with him, and then inquire about the term sea wolf. “My ancestors are from wolves,” Willie says, confiding that he too feels very connected to them.
“I was also an elite soccer player with the Kingcome Wolves. I even have a wolf tattoo.
“The term comes from orcas,” he continues. “They are smart and work together. When I started out, I was going to just cover orcas; I call them the wolves of the sea.”
“You can be my sea wolf story,” I joke.
Willie’s a warm and engaging storyteller. Listening intently, he teaches me how to spot a once inhabited First Nations area (hint: look for white beaches made from disposed butter clam shells) and how Western red cedars are harvested, leaving behind “culturally modified trees,” and then used for baskets, regalia, clothing, buildings and more.
We also talk politics. From salmon farming to the grizzly bear hunt, we share our distaste for their impacts on local ecology and people.
Over the course of an enjoyable morning, the wildlife also impresses.
First a whale breaches, then a white-sided dolphin appears only to be shown up by a gorgeous black bear that poses for us just before entering Kingcome Inlet. Best bet for a grizzly sighting, however, remains in the estuary.
Once docked, we switch into a zodiac he fetches from the boat’s roof. He smiles at me and points out a painted crest on a rock-faced hillside. It features a wolf and four stars.
Entering the estuary is damn near magical.
Bald eagles are everywhere — on stumps, in trees and flying overhead. I lose count after 50. They aren’t the only ones keeping us company; playful harbour seals curiously pop up circling us.
Then there’s the landscape.
Slowly we cruise along muddy sedge-lined banks as mist shrouds down at eye level. The sun fights its way through overcast skies with small slits of blue sky drenching light over green cedar-packed mountains, the water casts mirror-like reflections.
We scour in silence for bears; only honking geese fill the air with sound.
Standing up, Willie uses his binoculars to look around, and then pulls over to get out on a bear trail. Flattened grass shows bears have been around, but today they are nowhere in sight.
In the distance something is lodged in the side of a fallen tree. Sensing my interest, Willie pulls closer. It’s an eagle feather.
“Grab it! It’s yours,” he says. “This is very special.”
We head back as light rain begins to fall. A sense of calm has overcome me and the excitement of birds, seals and bears has floated away, replaced by gratitude and connection to the moment, to his homeland.
It’s just then he spots something and whispers, “Jenn! I can’t believe it. It’s a wolf!” My head raises just in time to catch a quick glimpse. It’s a coastal wolf, a species that through evolution has developed webbing between its paws, adapting it to water — also known as a sea wolf.
We’ve just seen an actual sea wolf!
He kills the motor and we drift hoping for a second glimpse. Rain falls hard but we are content, our eyes staring dead ahead. We stay until drenched. Exchanging glances, we grin hard, our hearts so obviously full from the rare moment.
“I’m so glad to have met you,” Willie says. “It was absolutely meant to be,” I reply. Though I may have come for the bears, the company of sea wolves could not be beat.
Fly: From Vancouver, take a one-hour flight to Port Hardy on Pacific Coastal Airlines and rent a car for the 30-minute drive Port McNeill.
Stay: I stayed at the Kwa’lilas Hotel in Port Hardy, the area’s first Indigenous-owned hotel.
Eat: Stay in and dine at Ha’me’ (food) located in the Kwa’lilas Hotel. Try local special, roasted elk loin.
Do this trip: Sea Wolf Adventures has various tours, including Grizzly Bears of the Wild ($450/person), Wildlife and Cultural Expedition ($180/person) and custom tours for $3,000/full day.
*This story originally appeared in the Toronto Star. I was a guest of Sea Wolf Adventures, Destination B.C. and Kwa’lilas Hotel, none of which reviewed or approved this story.